In Hard-To-Flee Yemen, Those Escaping Are Not Typical Refugees

In Hard-To-Flee Yemen, Those Escaping Are Not Typical Refugees

2:59pm May 08, 2015
Hassan Farid, 23, was a medical resident at a big hospital in Yemen and is the son of a judge. It can be difficult and expensive to flee Yemen, and educated professionals are among the refugees who have reached the nearby African nation of Djibouti.
Hassan Farid, 23, was a medical resident at a big hospital in Yemen and is the son of a judge. It can be difficult and expensive to flee Yemen, and educated professionals are among the refugees who have reached the nearby African nation of Djibouti.
Gregory Warner / NPR
  • Hassan Farid, 23, was a medical resident at a big hospital in Yemen and is the son of a judge. It can be difficult and expensive to flee Yemen, and educated professionals are among the refugees who have reached the nearby African nation of Djibouti.

    Hassan Farid, 23, was a medical resident at a big hospital in Yemen and is the son of a judge. It can be difficult and expensive to flee Yemen, and educated professionals are among the refugees who have reached the nearby African nation of Djibouti.

    Gregory Warner / NPR

  • A Yemeni man shows a bullet wound he suffered as he was fleeing his homeland by boat.

    A Yemeni man shows a bullet wound he suffered as he was fleeing his homeland by boat.

    Gregory Warner / NPR

  • Raja Abdulkhadr is a lawyer from Yemen. She is now staying at an old soccer stadium, hoping that another country might accept her family.

    Raja Abdulkhadr is a lawyer from Yemen. She is now staying at an old soccer stadium, hoping that another country might accept her family.

    Gregory Warner / NPR

  • Children nap on the floor of a soccer stadium's warmup room at the Obock port in Djibouti.

    Children nap on the floor of a soccer stadium's warmup room at the Obock port in Djibouti.

    Gregory Warner / NPR

The conflict in Yemen has escalated rapidly and it has become a difficult place to flee. The land route to Saudi Arabia is blocked by Houthi rebels. Some have tried to cross the Gulf of Aden to the east coast of Africa, but for that you need a boat.

Those who have reached the tiny African state of Djibouti are not your stereotypical refugees. Some were fishermen — they had boats — and others came from Yemen's small professional class, and therefore had the money to buy a seat on the boats.

I met some of them at an outdoor soccer stadium turned refugee transit center near the port of Obock in Djibouti.

A Yemeni man shows a bullet wound he suffered as he was fleeing his homeland by boat.

A Yemeni man shows a bullet wound he suffered as he was fleeing his homeland by boat.

Gregory Warner/NPR

Hassan Farid, 23, was a medical resident at a major Yemeni hospital. His father is a judge. His father is still in Yemen, "hiding from the same criminals he sentenced," Farid says.

Farid paid $300 to board a repurposed cargo ship at the port in the southern coastal city of Aden. Houthi rebels fired on them as they waited to board.

"This guy was shot in the leg," he explains, and the young man next to him obediently rolls up his pants to show a bullet wound through the calf. Earlier this week, rockets allegedly fired by the same rebels sank a fleeing ship and killed at least 40 people.

Dikra Mohamed is a lawyer who lived through two earlier Yemeni conflicts in previous decades. Those wars never touched her personally. This time, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired into her living room.

"It was like World War III," she says. "Everything was destroyed."

Raja Abdulkhadr is a lawyer from Yemen. She is now staying at an old soccer stadium, hoping that another country might accept her family.

Raja Abdulkhadr is a lawyer from Yemen. She is now staying at an old soccer stadium, hoping that another country might accept her family.

Gregory Warner/NPR

Though she feels lucky to have escaped to Djibouti, the most difficult issue is the heat. This transit center in Obock is not far from the Danakil Depression, one of the hottest places on Earth. Even here at the port, summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees.

Raja Abdulkhadr, another lawyer, rattles off her children's educational degrees: her son, the geological engineer, another son, trained in computer science, and two daughters — a university lecturer and a TV station director.

The subtext is clear: These are not the people you would normally find sleeping in the warmup room of an old soccer stadium. She wonders if Canada might take her family. "Canada's empty," she says with a laugh. "And it's cold. We need cold."

Saudi Arabia has been carrying out airstrikes against Houthi rebel positions in Yemen since late March. That has made it even more difficult for refugees to escape and humanitarian agencies to gain access.

Children nap on the floor of a soccer stadium's warmup room at the Obock port in Djibouti.

Children nap on the floor of a soccer stadium's warmup room at the Obock port in Djibouti.

Gregory Warner/NPR

The Saudis agreed to a five-day cease-fire on Thursday during a visit to the kingdom by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, though the rebels have yet to agree to the terms. The U.N. agency that runs this camp in Djibouti predicts that a cease-fire will have the effect of increasing the number of refugees, because thousands are likely to flee as soon as there is a stop in the shooting.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

To become a refugee from war, you first need to find some way to flee, and fleeing the war in Yemen is not easy. The land route to Saudi Arabia is blocked by Houthi rebels who are fighting for control of Yemen. You can try to go by water crossing the Gulf of Aden to the nation of Djibouti in Africa, but, of course, for that you need a boat. NPR's Gregory Warner went to Djibouti to hear stories of those who made it out.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: If time is the enemy of all refugees then every one of the Yemenis at this transit camp in a soccer stadium in Obock, Djibouti, has found some way to beat it. A hospital intern dispenses free medical advice, a sales executive uses his negotiation skills to calm worried families, and Yemeni lawyers argue.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: We'll get to the lawyer story in a second, but first, the hospital intern, Hassan Farid. He fled Yemen by crossing the gulf in a cargo ship under fire by Houthi rebels.

HASSAN FARID: They shoot this guy in his leg. He can show you.

WARNER: The guy next to him obediently rolls up his pants to show a bullet wound through his calf.

FARID: They want to scare people to not travel to there, OK?

WARNER: Earlier this week, rockets allegedly fired by Houthi rebels sunk a fleeing ship and killed at least 40 people. So in this situation where people are being prevented from fleeing, you need some kind of advantage to get out - either your own boat or money to hire one. Here at the camp I meet many fishermen and also many from Yemen's professional class.

RAJA ABDUL KHADR: Over here they have good educated.

WARNER: Raja Abdul Khadr, another lawyer, fled with nothing but her laptop and her 14 children and grandchildren, who she starts introducing. Like, this one's a computer scientist and this one is a geological engineer.

KHADR: Engineer geology for oil, my son.

WARNER: This daughter's a university lecturer. That daughter is a director at a TV station.

KHADR: Yes.

WARNER: And you can hear the subtext - people like us aren't supposed to be here, here sleeping in the warm-up room of an old soccer stadium. Here, separated from our homes and families; here, trying to get news from home as the Yemeni telecom system collapses.

MUNDER SOMER: Hello.

WARNER: Outside under a canopy tent, the Djiboutian Red Crescent, which functions like the Red Cross, is offering refugees one free phone call to Yemen.

SOMER: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: Twenty-year-old Munder Somer is asking is father home? Is father home? His father stayed to guard the family property from looters, but if the war isn't stopped soon then his father will be trapped.

SOMER: Hello (foreign language spoken).

WARNER: He never does reach his dad, but his little sister tells him they're dropping bombs on the neighborhood again.

SOMER: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: For those who do manage to make the escape to Djibouti, the biggest issue here is the heat. We're not far from the Danakil Depression, one of the hottest places on Earth. And even here at the port of Obock, summer temperatures can reach up 120 degrees. Dikra Mohamed, who's one of the lawyers that we heard arguing earlier, returns with a baby. It's not her baby, but she thrusts it toward me like she's presenting evidence in court.

DIKRA MOHAMED: (Foreign language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

WARNER: The child's forehead and chest are red.

MOHAMED: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: "The heat, the heat," Mohamed says. Now, one of the reasons the situation in Yemen is so complex is the counterattack. Saudi warplanes have been bombing Houthi rebel positions in Yemen since late March. It's made it very difficult for humanitarians to get access. Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Riyadh. The Saudi's agreed to a five day cease-fire. The rebels have yet to agree to the terms, but the U.N. agency that runs this camp predicts that if a cease-fire takes place that it'll actually increase the number of refugees. Thousands more will come to these shores when it's safe to do so and that's because Yemen's major cities are so destroyed by the fighting. Dikra Mohamed tells me she watched an RPG go through her living room window. The med student, Hassan Farid, says his father, a judge, is now hiding from the criminals he once sentenced. Raja Abdul Khadr, who escaped with her 14 family members, also plans not to go home to Yemen again soon. How about Canada, she asked me. Will Canada take us? Canada's a big country.

KHADR: And empty, yes, still - and speak English like us and cold. We need cold. It's very hot. We are dying from the hot.

WARNER: But you say we're dying, and at least you smile.

KHADR: Yeah, what are you going to do? You want me crying?

WARNER: I guess that's what people expect, for you to cry.

KHADR: I - when you smile, my children feel better. I have be - by this situation I have be strong, yes.

WARNER: You have to be strong for your children.

KHADR: If they show me I am smile, says, oh, it's good. You're good. Is Mama, good? Everything is good (laughter) yes, yes.

WARNER: Even you, she says, if you see your mother smile, don't you feel good? Gregory Warner, NPR News, Obock, Djibouti. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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